Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Detective Bent and the Murder of PC Cock

It's a pleasure to welcome Angela Buckley, author of Who Killed Constable Cock?, to delve into the world of Detective Bent and a mysterious crime.

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In the early hours of 2 August 1876, 21-year-old PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat in the quiet suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. He stopped briefly at a junction for a chat with a passing law student and a colleague, after which all three men went their separate ways. A few minutes later, two shots rang out in the dark. PC Cock’s companions ran back to the junction to find the young police officer lying in a pool of blood. He had received a bullet to the chest and later died of his injuries. 


When the tragic news reached the police station, Superintendent Bent knew instantly who had killed his officer. Within half an hour of PC Cock’s death, he had arrested the three Habron brothers and charged them with murder. With his prime suspects firmly in his sights, and without considering any other leads, he set out to prove their guilt.

James Bent was born in Eccles, Salford in 1828. His father was a night watchman. At just seven years old, James began working in a silk mill, where he was constantly beaten by the supervisors. On 7 November 1848, Bent joined the Lancashire Constabulary. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and sandy hair. A married man with four children, he was transferred several times and promoted through the ranks, reaching superintendent in 1868, by which time he was stationed at Old Trafford police station, from where he commanded the Manchester division. 

PC Nicholas Cock was tragically murdered in 1876.
Armed with his favourite adage, ‘Always believe everybody guilty until you prove them innocent’, Superintendent Bent investigated many different types of crime, including theft, burglary, illegal gaming and assault. He once tackled an intriguing case of attempted murder by a hawker of blacking who tried to poison his wife, an inmate of Prestwich Lunatic Asylum. During a visit, the itinerant salesman took her some Eccles cakes and, when she tried to eat them, she discovered that inside each cake was a dozen pins twisted into the shape of fish hooks. Superintendent Bent had the cakes analysed and found that they also contained antimony, a lead-based poison. He kept the pins as souvenirs, handing them out to crime enthusiasts. 

Shortly after, Superintendent Bent investigated another complex murder, for which he employed a very controversial method identify the killer. Nineteen-year old maid Sarah Roberts was murdered in her employer’s house by an unknown assailant. When the police failed to find the culprit, Superintendent Bent resorted to having the victim’s eyes photographed, to see if the attacker’s face was imprinted on them. The day before Sarah Jane’s funeral the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of ordinary notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880). Sarah Jane’s killer was never caught.
Superintendent James Bent set out to find PC Cock’s killer.
In 1891, Superintendent Bent published his memoirs, in which he described the murder of PC Cock, and the investigation he had led to catch the perpetrator. The wily detective built his case against the Habron brothers mainly on the discovery of footprints at the crime scene, which matched the suspects’ boots. He also found percussion caps in the youngest brother William’s waistcoat, although the murder weapon was never recovered. In November 1876, William Habron, aged 18, was convicted of Nicholas Cock’s murder. Once again Superintendent Bent had caught his man. Or so he thought. As young William languished behind bars, three years later an astonishing confession by a notorious Victorian cat burglar completely overturned the case and Constable Cock’s real killer was finally revealed.


Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, www.angelabuckleywriter.com and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.


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